WHY EVERYTHING IS DIFFERENT WHEN YOU’RE ALONE ...
Acknowledgements: AIR FACTS (John Zimmerman)
(Ed.Note: The following has been condensed from John’s article on the joys and the perils of flying solo .... to read the full article and others, visit the excellent AIR FACTS site)
.... “I almost always fly with someone in the right seat. Flying is simply too good not to share with others, so I prefer to have someone to talk to. Nobody flies for free either, as my right-seater either reads the checklist, looks for traffic, or watches the engine gauges.
..... when I am flying solo, I instantly notice how different the whole experience is .... these flights are more personal and more meditative for me, with the focus on the airplane and the world around it, and I have to admit that being alone in the air is a great feeling. With passengers on board, I’m thinking about the pilot-passenger relationship more than the pilot-airplane one,
The safety record for solo flights is different too. While it’s almost impossible to get a true measure of the single-pilot accident record it’s probably safe to say it’s worse .... a study in 2015 found the accident rate for single-pilot certified turbine aircraft was over three times higher than two-pilot aircraft, and the fatality rate was 13 times higher. Other studies use different data, but generally report the same trend. So, it should definitely make us think.
Given those numbers, a pilot flying solo needs to approach each flight with good habits and perhaps larger built-in safety margins. For me, that means thinking about four key areas: the condition of the pilot, cockpit habits, teamwork, and personal risk tolerance.
It all starts with the basics: While it’s easy to scoff at the “IM SAFE” checklist recommended by the FAA, the general concept is sound, especially for solo flights. There’s no one to wake you up if you doze off, and no one to point out an altitude bust .... the pernicious effects of medicine on pilots are often underestimated, and if anything, this problem is only getting worse .... many prescription drugs do not mix with flying.
Fatigue is another serious threat, partially because it’s so hard to judge, but clearly there’s a line that should not be crossed .... unfortunately, at least a few pilots die every year because they didn’t address the question satisfactorily. It’s a reminder that making the go/no-go decision means more than just examining the weather.
Pilot proficiency is similarly hard to judge but is just as important. The key is not just in everyday skills, but also the ability to handle the airplane if something goes wrong .... without a co-pilot to read the checklist or tune a radio frequency, multi-tasking is a given.
Once in the airplane, try to make as many decisions as automatic as possible. Checklists and standard operating procedures are essential parts of this mindset, even if they’re of the homemade variety .... the key is to make these simple and realistic enough that they get used, so tailor the decisions to the type of flying you do.
Cockpit flows are another essential tool for single-pilot flying .... make a quick flow check at regular intervals during the flight: before take-off, after the wheels come up, out of 10,000 feet, once level in cruise, etc. .... a quick but thoughtful review of important switches and instruments, from the oil pressure to the landing light .... systematically moving from left to right, then top to bottom .... besides catching the occasional mistake, it’s a great way to stay engaged and awake on a long flight.
The defining characteristic of solo flight is its isolation – there is nobody to fly the airplane other than you .... but that doesn’t mean you’re completely alone .... approach every flight as if it’s a team effort. Step one is to have a “coaching staff,” perhaps a mechanic or a flight instructor you can call before take-off. Deciding when to fly is often one of the most difficult decisions we make, but it also has a major impact on safety, so it’s worth the effort to bring in another voice. With smartphones, this is easier than ever.
Another way to expand your crew is to talk to yourself .... it may seem a little weird at first, but I find it very helpful for staying focused, completing checklists, double-checking routes, and monitoring altitudes .... verbalising your actions will often force you to think more clearly.
ATC is another obvious resource .... they cannot fly the airplane for you, and they cannot see the cloud in front of you, but they can lighten the workload .... if the panel goes dark, let ATC find the nearest VFR weather. If you need to divert and can’t find a frequency or identifier, ask ATC to read you the information. Flying the airplane always comes first .... anything else should be offloaded.
Finally, regular solo flyers should consider their individual approach to risk. A good start is simply to recognise that your risk tolerance might subtly change depending on whether there is anyone else on board.
This cuts two ways: some pilots push the envelope to prove to passengers or other pilots that they can complete the mission, while others tend to cut corners only when they are alone. The accident record has plenty of examples of both .... does your appetite for risk change based on the passenger load? .... It really shouldn’t – safe flying is safe flying, whether there are passengers on board or not.
Comfort is another matter. You might bounce through that puffy cumulus cloud when you’re solo, while you would turn five degrees right with a nervous passenger on board .... but be sure to understand the difference here, and to adjust only your standard of comfort.
Solo flights aren’t something to be feared .... they can be some of the most rewarding and memorable .... German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote, “A man can be himself only so long as he is alone, and if he does not love solitude, he will not love freedom, for it is only when he is alone that he is really free.” .... or as a friend of mine said after his first solo cross-country, “Now that’s flying!”